Has your business or department “always done it this way”?

5 Minutes

“We’ve Always Done It This Way”. Yes, it’s a cliche but, like so many cliches, it is rooted in reality. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a client where the immortal words have not been uttered at some point (probably every department at every client).

It’s become such a part of my life that I daresay it will be on my gravestone one day.

The use of this phrase is nothing new. Grace Hopper is credited with the quote

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way’.”

in 1976, so it seems reasonable to assume it was being used long before Grace felt driven to hyperbole.

This isn’t the first article to discuss this phrase and I’m sure it won’t be the last. However, reading others, there seems to be a suggestion that the phrase is often used dismissively. That isn’t my experience. When I’m documenting a process and question why a task or activity is performed a certain way, the words “Because we’ve always done it this way” are usually accompanied by a slight look of embarrassment or a nervous laugh and followed by “I bet everyone says that don’t they?”. In most cases, there is nothing for the person to feel embarrassed or awkward about. Let me explain why…

Why Don’t People Pick Up On These Issues?

99.9% of people want to do a good job, so it can sometimes feel incomprehensible that ineffective ways of working have been allowed to continue untouched. However, consider their position for a moment. In all likelihood, that person is pretty busy every day. They’re performing their role, dealing with queries, handling unexpected events, etc. Assuming the process is delivering the required outcome, when do they get the chance to step back and consider how the process could be improved? Habit and ‘the way we’ve always done it’ win every time. The chances are that at the back of their mind, they are thinking “There must be better ways of doing this”, but there is a big leap between having the thought and it manifesting itself in change.

In some instances, people do have ideas on how to change their ways of working, but there isn’t an effective way for them to raise these ideas (this is a particular passion of mine, so I’ll come back to it another day). Either way, nothing is changing.

Take An Independent Perspective

Frequently, when we have documented a process and the person we are working with sees the steps clearly laid out, they’ll say something along the lines of “It’s crazy when you see it like that” or “I can’t believe we do that every day”. The documented process allows them to step back from simply doing and see the reality of what is happening. The chances are that they would never sit down and document their own ways of working and even if they did, there is a chance that they focus on the “should be” rather than how things are really done.

This is why an independent viewpoint can help to highlight where these issues occur. It doesn’t matter whether this is an internal team (where organisations can justify having one) or an external consultant, the key is that someone is questioning how a job is truly performed. They will ask the ‘stupid’ questions that, perhaps, don’t get asked within the team but are key in uncovering the actual process and subsequently the areas which are ripe for improvement.

Identifying and changing these ingrained ways of working can result in significant benefits for any business. Whether it’s reducing costs, saving time, or creating growth, there is almost certainly undiscovered gold in your processes if you haven’t yet set about documenting them.

Not only do documented processes help you to discover the opportunities for positive change in your business, but they also allow you to create a standard way of working. There is little point in improving a process if it isn’t going to be followed by everyone. That will simply result in moving from “We’ve always done it this way” to “I’ve always done it this way”!